Don’t ban polls

Law that prohibits publishing polls before election underestimates the public's ability to make decisions on their own.

March 15, 2015 23:22
3 minute read.
Elections in Israel

Elections in Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Starting Friday, a ban was put in place on publicizing opinion polls connected with the election.

Until 2007, the ban on publicizing polls began 24 hours before Election Day. Since then an amendment to the law was made so that the ban begins on the Friday preceding national elections, which are always on a Tuesday. As a result, for four full days before elections it is prohibited to publish opinion polls related to the elections. Only after the polls are closed on Tuesday will it be permitted to make public the results of polls taken on Election Day or in the three days before.

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In explaining the reason for the amendment, lawmakers who supported it stated the following: “In previous elections it has been discovered that opinion polls are not simply a reflection of political opinions, [but] they also shape opinions and change the voting patterns of certain segments of the voting public. In order to keep the influence of these polls to levels acceptable in a democratic state without restricting freedom of expression, we recommend prohibiting the publication of opinion polls four days before elections…” The legislators who decided to place the four-day ban on opinion polls (previous attempts had striven to place a two-week ban) rightly noted that humans – in Israel and elsewhere – tend to adhere to a herd mentality. People tend to conform to the majority opinion by jumping on the bandwagon and shifting their personal preference (if they have one) to the leading candidate or the most popular policy.

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Media coverage inevitably devotes much space not to an analysis of the issues or hard reporting but to fluctuations in support for a particular candidate or policy. Not only do newspapers, TV and radio news outlets report on public opinion, they regularly commission their own surveys and report on them as well.

This focus on popularity affects support, levels of engagement, volunteering and turnout. Besides dumbing down the political discourse, these bandwagon effects can make polls self-fulfilling prophecies – the predictions of the polls come to pass because the polls not only measure public opinion but also influence public opinion and engagement.

A number of reasons are given for this herd mentality.

People choose a popular candidate or policy because they need to feel liked and accepted or believe they share the prevailing opinions of their community. Another reason might be a faith in the wisdom of the crowd, based on the assumption that other people did their homework and that a candidate’s popularity reflects his or her quality.

Finally, polls might affect “tactical voters” or voters who do not want to throw away their vote and therefore want to vote for a party that has a good chance of succeeding and being part of a future government.

Whatever the reason, however, we must be careful not to confuse measurements of public opinion with democracy. Individuals form their political opinions based on a wide range of variables, including peer pressure and a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance by making sure they are on the winning side in the elections. Still, one’s desire to improve society in accordance with deep-seated convictions should be one’s primary motivation.

Our legislators have recognized that opinion polls have a potentially detrimental impact on voting patterns.

Therefore, they have decided to ban them in the days leading up to elections. This is an attempt to balance two conflicting values: the public’s right to know and the desire to minimize voter manipulation.

However, we would like to think that the voting public is smarter than our legislators would have us believe. In the US, Australia and Britain there are no bans on opinion polls – even on the day of elections.

In an open and free society like Israel’s, voters should be relied on to take in the available information, process it and decide for themselves. We need not pass laws that ban polls. Our voters should be given more credit than that.

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